SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) -
Right now, more than a million people in Texas are driving without a license. Many of them are making that choice because of huge surcharges they owe the state that have racked up over time. But now there is a push to do away with the law that created those surcharges. Drivers who aren't aware of how it works, however, can be saddled with massive debt and spend lots of time in court.
In office since 1982, Judge Mitch Shamburger has seen it all; enough, in fact, to write a book. But he still doesn't understand the purpose of the surcharges in the driver responsibility program.
"We put these people in a worse financial bind than they were in to start with," Shamburger said.
He says he sees two to three people a day in his court dealing with issues arising from surcharges. And he says they're there because there's no easy answer to the question surcharges pose.
"Am I gonna go to work today, and drive with an invalid license, or am I not gonna go to work?" he said.
Here's how the surcharges in the program work:
If a driver is convicted of DWI, in addition to the legal punishment, the driver is also required to pay a $1,000 surcharge per year for three years.
For driving without insurance, or driving with an invalid license, it's $250 a year for three years.
For driving without a licence, it's $100, and if you don't pay it, you can lose your license and incur more surcharges.
Joseph Yeno says he owes well over $5,000 in surcharges, and he's been driving without a license for five years. He can't afford to pay the surcharges, because he doesn't have a job, which he says he can't get without a valid license.
"You lie on the application," Yeno said. "You get sick and tired of it, and you don't tell them. And then they find out and they fire you. It's happened to me twice."
Yeno was arrested in Smith County in April 2014 for driving while license invalid. His seven-year-old son was with him when it happened, and he says now, his son watches the road for flashing lights.
"My son says, 'There's a police officer. Turn right, dad.' He's scared I'm going to go to jail every day," Yeno told us.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston was an original co-author of the program. But he told KLTV 7 that the surcharges have proven to be too much for many families, and that's only one of the reasons he's now seeking to repeal it.
"It has created a more dangerous situation than existed before, because you have a million people who are on the roads who have suspended drivers licenses," Turner said.
And Judge Shamburger told us that people who have driven that long without licenses are that much more likely to drive without insurance, as well.
The funds collected from the Driver Responsibility Program are meant to be allocated to trauma hospitals across the state.
Representative Turner told KLTV 7 that only a percentage of the money is going to those hospitals. East Texas State Representative Matt Schaefer says that he's also in favor of repealing the law, as long as funding for those hospitals is protected.